One of My Very Few Thoughts On Hip Hop

So since I’ve been home a lot more than I usually am – pretty much more than I have been since grade school – I’ve gotten the "opportunity" to watch more TV than I usually do. 

First of all, I just want to say that TV sucks as a general rule.  I am now convinced that if it wasn’t for the Simpsons, Family Guy, and Deadwood, there would be pretty much no reason for me to have a TV.

Secondly, I’ve been watching some music videos on MTV (they apparently do show them once in a while… ) and have noticed a few things about the current state of hip-hop music.

I honestly think that hip-hop and rap music is at the same stage that heavy metal and hard rock was back in the early 90’s.   When metal (I’ll just use that term for the entire hard rock/heavy metal genre) first started back in the very late 60’s and early 70’s, and really right through the 80’s, there was an air of legitimacy about the "badness" of the music.  These were guys who were really doing all the drugs, sex and drinking that they were singing about, as well as some of the "truly" evil stuff (i.e. Jimmy Page becoming an Alastair Crowley fanatic).   As the 80’s bands came in there was a sense of true youthful aggression in a lot of the music.  Even if they themselves hadn’t had their limbs blown off by war or worshiped at the house of Satan or whatever,  you sure as hell believed it to some extent when you listened to the songs.  They were legitimate expressions of youthful rage and anguish that a certain (somewhat small) group of people identified with very strongly.

As metal became more popular, the genre became more mainstream and pop-sounding.   It didn’t start right away – the tales that bands like Motley Crue related in songs like "Wild Side" or "Girls, Girls, Girls" were their actual lives.  However, other bands took up the themes of sex, drugs, drinking, and debauchery and started making lighthearted pop songs out of them.

Suddenly everyone was listening to this music that was previously the estate of leather-clad long-haired rebels.  "Unskinny Bop" by Poison was taking the place of "Angel of Death" by Slayer. 

Now I don’t want to say that there’s anything wrong with either – "Unskinny Bop" is a disturbingly catchy pop-metal tune, but it is about as far away from the true roots of heavy metal as you can get.  Maybe the fact that it is about sex in some manner and has some guitar licks… but otherwise, it is mainly a pop song, which is fine.  And it doesn’t make "Angel of Death" a better song because it is more "serious" – it is, however, closer to the dark roots of heavy metal.

As more and more bands took the pop-metal approach, the look and marketing of the bands were more important than the music itself.   It was about the hair, the makeup and clothes – and how big, how much, and how gaudy, each band could get them, respectively.   Metal became a mockery of itself, taking the black leather, long hair, and scary dark eye makeup and turning it into red latex pants, "poofy" hair, and mascara.

So how does this tie back to hip-hop, and more specifically, rap,  in its current state?   Well, rap and metal  have similar roots, philosophically (something that has been addressed by several critics over the years):  both stem from disenfranchised youth looking for a way to express their repression, anger and fear, while hopefully finding a way out of the situation that they felt trapped in.

For metal it was often teenagers in decaying mill towns with high unemployment and a stifling lack of opportunities, or cookie-cutter suburbs where individuality was punished.  For rap, it was black youth in inner cities trapped by unemployment, racism, and a lack of education and opportunities. 

For both groups, their situation stirred an enormous amount of anger and frustration in them and they found ways of expressing it.  Metal was loud, fast and/or plodding guitars, drums and bass; for rappers it was using existing records and turntables as well as the sounds they could make vocally and then creating rhymes about life on the streets.

This is the "root" of rap and hip-hop – oppressed youth culture trying to express itself.   This was reflected in the music of Public Enemy, NWA, etc.    What has happened to rap since then  is remarkably similar to what happened to metal in my view.  Look at a typical rap video today and here’s what you will see:

  • Girls in the skimpiest outfits possible; they would make Van Halen and Great White blush
  • Rappers in pimped out expensive cars
  • Drinking expensive drinks
  • Singing about money and girls

What happened to surviving in the streets?   Well, what happened is that rap has gone mainstream which has resulted in two things: first, the music and the lyrics need to be more listener friendly.  Secondly, the artists – god bless ’em – have money and they are now forced to sing about what they know. 

This has resulted in rap becoming about the image and the glamour, just as it did with metal.   Rappers used to dress in nondescript loose clothing; now they have their own designer labels.  They used to sing about making it home from high school alive walking through the streets; now it is about shakin’ booty.

Now, before anyone brings up the obvious, let me address two points.  First of all, this not meant to be racist – I’m not saying black people shouldn’t be given a chance to succeed.   If anything, if anyone from the rap and hip-hop industry reads this, they may want to view this as a warning to them that they are on the cusp of potentially losing it all.

Let’s face it, at one point, all those metal bands thought they were going to be around forever, but when the hell was the last time Slaughter sold out your local civic center?  People finally figure out that it is all superficial and that all the music and videos are looking and sounding alike.  "oooh… look…. another black woman with a nice ass shaking her butt while wearing a short skirt."  Haven’t seen that in the last two minutes on MTV…  It is like the obligatory "rock chick" in the classic metal videos of the 80’s and early 90’s.  Hate to break it to you guys, but it is the same thing, just a different outfit.

Secondly, yes, I know that both genres have always had their fun artists.   It isn’t like "Funky Cold Medina" was a great social commentary, and that’s cool.  If anything, it is the exception which proves the rule.

What I’m saying is that "Candyshop" by 50 Cent is a good, catchy song with a hell of an interesting video – I’m sure that there are at least as many 12 year old boys hitting puberty watching that video as there were when Great White put out "Once Bitten, Twice Shy."  But let’s face it – "Anti-Nigger Machine" this stuff ain’t!

Is there really a difference between Whitesnake’s video of "Here I Go Again" (BTW, I’m criticizing my own favorite power ballad from a hair metal band I love, so I’m definitely being fair about all of this) with a ridiculously hot-looking Tawny Kittaen sprawling across a Porsche and Jay-Z dueting with a ludicrously hot-looking Beyonce?

The counter-argument to this would be artists such as Eminem and 50 Cent who come across as "legitimate" rappers with their experiences on the streets.   I’m not going to get into a "truth or dare" with any of that, as I respect anyone who pulled themselves out of a bad situation, but let’s face it – rap has created a culture where even the legit guys end up becoming a bit of  a caricature, since the model has already been cast. 

Again, there’s not a real message in this – and there probably isn’t anyone of consequence enough to read this that it would matter if there was – but instead, it simply an observation.  I will be watching with great curiosity over the next few years to see what ends up being rap’s version of grunge which will eventually unseat the biggest names, sending it into a downward cycle but never fully disappearing, only to come back up several years later with a meaner, leaner, more updated sound, while the old-timers enjoy a revival.   

This is another parallel to metal – once Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the rest came along in the 90’s and killed off metal (pop, hair, glam, and otherwise), many of those bands disappeared (where the hell are the Bullet Boys) but now, several years later you have two major trends: first, you have the Poisons/LA Guns/Warrants/etc. of the world going out on double/triple/quadruple billed shows and selling out arenas.   But more impressively, metal went underground for a few years, learned its lessons, and came back heavier and more aggressive than ever in the form of bands like Korn, Tool, Coal Chamber, Soulfly, etc., with lyrics as dark, evil, and/or depressing as ever.  It became "serious" music again. 

I wonder if we will ever see rappers returning to the roots of rhyming about bullets, drug dealing and racial inequities again in another 5-10 years???